Frequently Asked Questions

The following are some of the most FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS about the life, loves, and career of Harry Houdini. I hope you find these helpful.

Who is Houdini?
Harry Houdini is the most famous magician and escape artist who ever lived. He achieved his first success on the Vaudeville stage in America in 1899 and then superstardom the following year in Europe. His claim was that "Nothing on Earth Can Hold Houdini a Prisoner," and he proved it time and again by accepting public challenges. In some escapes, he defied death. He also authored books, flew his own airplane, starred in silent films, and became a tireless exposer of fraudulent spirit mediums. He died on Halloween in 1926. Several movies have been made about his life and hundreds of books have been written about him. He remains as famous today as he was in his own time.
Further reading:
Houdini's real name was Ehrich Weiss. He took the stage name Houdini by adding an "i" to the name of the most famous magician in history up until that time, Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin. Houdini later claimed he took the name "Harry" to honor American magician Harry Kellar, but there's evidence Harry was his anglicized name from childhood. In 1916 he legally changed his name to Harry Handcuff Houdini.

Did the Houdinis have children?
(This is the #1 most Googled question that draws people to this blog.)
Even though they both loved children, the Houdinis did not have any children of their own. While there are stories about how Houdini might have been sterilized by X-rays (his brother was a radiologist who worked for time out of Houdini's home), and one biographer speculated that Houdini might have been impotent, the truth is it was Bess Houdini who could not conceive children due to a medical condition.
Further reading:
The problem with Bessie
Why does Jerry Seinfeld think Houdini was impotent
Did the Houdinis have a daughter?

Did Houdini go over Niagara Falls in a barrel?
Houdini never went over Niagara Falls in a barrel. He did conceive of a stunt, never performed, in which he would apparently go over the falls in a packing crate. But his notes show that he never planned to actually be in the crate. In 1921, Houdini filmed scenes for his movie The Man From Beyond on the American Falls. Ironically, he filmed these scenes on the same day as the funeral for Annie Edson Taylor, the first person to survive going over the falls in a barrel in 1901.
Further reading:
How Houdini planned to (not) go over Niagara Falls
Houdini's rough ride at Niagara Falls
Houdini in the rapids

Was Houdini a spy?
The idea that Houdini could have worked as a spy first appeared in the 2006 biography The Secret Life of Houdini. Houdini was friendly with William Melville of Scotland Yard who reportedly did operate an early version of British Intelligence (formal intelligence agencies as we know them did not exist at this time). Houdini appears to have provided Melville with "reports" while he was in Germany in 1900 and 1902. Everything beyond this is pure speculation and, IMO, blown out of proportion by Hollywood and others.
Further reading:
Brad Meltzer is out peddling the myth that Houdini was a spy
Experts weigh in on 'Secret Life' spy revelation.
Unmasking The Secret Life of Houdini

Was Houdini a Mason?
Yes, Houdini was a Freemason, although he came to the Order somewhat late in his life. "Brother Houdini" was a member of the Cecile Lodge No 568 in New York City. He passed to the degree of Fellowcraft on July 31, 1923, and was raised to the Degree of Master Mason on August 21, 1923. In 1924 he entered the Consistory, which is the fourth and final degree in the Scottish Rite. His funeral included full Masonic Rites. 
Further reading:
Guest Blog: Author-Lecturer-Mystifier-Mason 
Houdini lying in state at Elks Lodge #1

Did Houdini get trapped under the ice of a frozen river?
Even though Houdini himself would tell the story of being trapped under an ice sheet during a bridge jump, there is no evidence that it ever happened. Houdini would also alter the location and details in various tellings. The most popular location is the Belle Isle Bridge in Detroit in 1906. But newspaper accounts say nothing about the river being frozen over that day. Houdini being trapped under the ice was dramatized in the 1953 biopic Houdini starring Tony Curtis and again in the 2014 miniseries Houdini with Adrien Brody, so the myth endures.
Further reading:
Houdini freezes the Detroit river
Trapped under the ice with Houdini
Punching a new hole in the ice story

Did Houdini have affairs?
While some recent Houdini biopics have painted Houdini as a serial adulterer and ladies man, he was actually a very devoted husband and quite puritanical in matters of sex. However, there is evidence of at least one affair with the widow of Jack London in 1918. There are also rumors and speculation about other women who might have played a romantic role in Houdini's life, but no proof.
Further reading:
The alleged loves of Harry Houdini
Link: A mysterious Houdini girlfriend
Link: Opening the door on Daisy White

Was Houdini an atheist?
Even though he was the son of Rabbi, Houdini was not orthodox nor overtly religious. He married a Catholic and celebrated Christmas. But he was not an atheist. He even reaffirmed his belief in God while under oath before Congress. However, he was frequently accused by spiritualists that he was "attacking religion" and even today there are those who still seek to conflate his skepticism with atheism.
Further reading:
Mr. Houdini Goes to Washington, Part III
Houdini's Bibles
Bessie's Christ

Was Houdini a bad magician?
While Houdini might not have been as polished a magician as some others during the Golden Age of Magic, he was not a "bad" magician and magic was always part of his act. Even his his early Handcuff King days he opened his act with select magic and closed with Metamorphosis. In Paris in 1901, it was actually his card magic that made him a hit. During his own time, Houdini was as well-known for his Needles trick as he was any one of his escapes, and his Walking Through a Brick Wall and Vanishing Elephant were dramatic conceptual improvements over the illusions on which they were based. However, some of his contemporaries found his magic lacking. Vic Torsberg, a longtime Chicago magician, said: "Houdini's magic was just a bunch of junk. You know, that push-button German crap. That's what he performed."
Further reading:
"Come up and see me magisch."
Doug Henning does Houdini's Conradi Lamps
Jim Steinmeyer on Houdini’s North Pole mystery

Did Houdini perform as a Wild Man?
During his early days, Houdini did double as "Projea The Wild Man of Mexico" while touring with the Welsh Bros. circus in Pennsylvania. He quit when he got hit in the eye with a piece of meat thrown into his cage by ringmaster Clint Newton.
Further reading:
Freaks of Octoberfest
Houdini joins the circus
Williamsport honors their "Wild Man" with historical marker

Did Houdini ring the bells of the Kremlin for Tsar Nicholas II?
Despite popular fiction, Houdini never performed before Tsar Nicholas II and never met Rasputin. When Houdini toured Russia in 1903, he performed before the Grand Duke Sergei Alexsandrovich and the Grand Duchess at Palace Kleinmichel in Moscow. However, there is no evidence to support his ringing the bells of the Kremlin as part of his act. It appears this story was created after Houdini's death by none other than Orson Welles, a great teller of tall tales.
Further reading:
Orson Welles remembers Houdini
The Handcuff King's blog: Breaking into Russia
Bess Houdini's Royal Crown Brooch headed to auction

Did Houdini do the bullet catch?
After his friend Chung Ling Soo (William Robinson) was killed onstage doing the bullet catch in 1918, Houdini considered doing the trick himself. But he was later dissuaded by magician Harry Kellar. While there is some evidence Houdini might have performed a version of a bullet catch very early in his career, it was not something he did during his fame and was not a trick he was ever known for.
Further reading:
Taking aim at Houdini's abandoned bullet catch
Did Houdini do the bullet catch in the 1890s?
Houdini's Last Secrets episode 2 hits the mark

Did Houdini do escapes in the nude?
To prove he concealed no keys or lockpicks, Houdini would strip nude and submit to an examination by a doctor during his handcuff and jail escapes. He even advertised himself as "Positively the only conjurer in the world who strips stark naked." He had a powerful physique and wasn't afraid to show it off.
Further reading:
Ebay auction dates Houdini's first 'nude'
Houdini's escape from Murderers Row
Houdini in 1899

Did Houdini live in Laurel Canyon?
While Houdini never owned what today is called the "Houdini Estate" at 2400 Laurel Canyon Blvd in Los Angeles, the property does have a strong Houdini connection. When Houdini came to Hollywood in 1919 to make a movie for Famous Players Lasky-Paramount, it's possible he may have rented a guest house across the street at 2435 Laurel Canyon Blvd. After Houdini's death, his widow Bess moved into that same guest house and lived there for several years. During this time, she held events for local magicians and magic organizations at the main property across the street, hence, many believed it to be the former home of Houdini. When the house burned down in the great Laurel Canyon fire of 1959, newspapers widely reported that it was Houdini's house, thus creating a legend that carries on to this day.
Further reading:
Inside the Laurel Canyon Houdini Estate
Is this Houdini and Bess in Laurel Canyon?
Vintage postcard shows Houdini's (real) Hollywood home

Did Bess Houdini smoke pot?
The same biography that gave us the "spy" theory also claimed that Bess Houdini smoked pot. This comes from a 1927 note in which she mentions that she dined out with "no drink and no weed." However, "weed" was slang for tobacco, so it's possible she is talking about cigarettes (she did smoke). While Bess is known to have enjoyed her champagne, the true extent of her drinking or use of any other substance is unknown.
Further reading:
Did Bess Houdini smoke pot?
Bessie and the Colonel
Marie Hinson remembers her sister Bess

How did Houdini die?
In October 1926, while performing in Montreal, Canada, Houdini was punched by a 30-year-old McGill University student named J. Gordon Whitehead. Believing a boast that Houdini could withstand a blow to the stomach, Whitehead struck the magician several times before he was ready. Houdini ignored the pain and increasing fever and pushed on to his next engagement at the Garrick Theater in Detroit. After struggling through a performance with a 104 degree temperature, Houdini gave into doctor's orders and checked into Grace Hospital.

When Houdini was operated on, it was discovered that he had been suffering from appendicitis and that his appendix had ruptured. Peritonitis had set in. A second operation and an experimental serum failed to save him. Houdini died at 1:26 pm on Halloween, 1926.

While Houdini's doctors concluded that the punch he received from Whitehead caused his fatal appendicitis, many feel that it's more logical Houdini was in the early stages of the disease when Whitehead delivered the blows. The debate on that point continues.
Further reading:
Time to rethink the rethinking on the Houdini punch
Did a contract clause kill Houdini?
Getting punchy
The Pickleman punch

What happened to the student who punched Houdini?
J. Gordon Whitehead was deposed by lawyers along with eyewitness Sam Smilovitz (aka "Smiley") and Jacques "Jack" Price. But because the punch was deemed accidental, no changers were filed. Whitehead, who later showed signs of mental illness, lived out much of his life as a hoarder. He died in 1954 and is buried in an unmarked plot in Hawthorn-Dale Cemetery in Montreal.
Further reading:
This is J. Gordon Whitehead
Is this J. Gordon Whitehead at McGill in 1926?
J. Gordon Whitehead revealed in The Man Who Killed Houdini

Was Houdini murdered?
As with other celebrity deaths, a murder conspiracy theory sprung up in the tabloid press shorty after Houdini died. The theory claimed that Houdini's doctors, secretly in league with spiritualists, poisoned him. However, there is no evidence for this. Houdini died from naturally occurring Peritonitis after his appendix ruptured. He was treated by four independent doctors, including his own long time physician. To suggest these doctors secretly colluded to murder their most famous patient who was going to die anyway is a stretch. Nevertheless, the murder theory remains popular and is a frequent subject of reality TV. In 2007 there was even a push to exhume and test Houdini's body. This was later debunked as a publicity stunt to promote the 2006 book The Secret Life of Houdini.
Further reading:
Time to bury the Houdini exhumation
Decoding Decoded
Houdini's nurse and a new case for murder

Why wasn't Bess Houdini buried with her husband?
It's not entirely clear why Bess Houdini wasn't buried in the Weiss family plot on Machpelah cemetery with Houdini as planned (her name is on the headstone). Some have suggested that, as a Catholic, she could not be buried in the Jewish cemetery. But some Jewish cemeteries do make allowances for a spouse. It's also been said her family preferred her to be buried in their own family plot in Gate of Heaven cemetery in Hawthorne, New York, as she had re-embraced her faith. It's also possible that the family plot was the easiest and least expensive option for the family as Bess died without money.
Further reading:
Bessie's two graves
Bess and the lost grave (updated)
AUDIO: Marie Hinson remembers the death of her sister Bess Houdini

What is the best Houdini biography?
In my opinion, the best and most accurate Houdini biography is Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss by Kenneth Silverman. It was first published in 1996 by Harper Collins. Today it is out of print, but copies can still be found on Amazon. I'd also highly recommend 1969's Houdini The Untold Story by Milbourne Christopher.

Does anyone own Houdini's name and likeness?
Because Harry and Bess had no children, there is no direct descendant and no formal Houdini Estate. Houdini's name and likeness has been used freely without license on everything from magic shops to steak knives. There are descendants from Hardeen and Bess's siblings whose wishes are respected in family matters, such as the proposed 2007 exhumation, which they objected to. David Merlini of the House of Houdini Museum in Budapest owns the use of Houdini's name in Europe.
Further reading:
Blood family speaks out against exhumation
John Hinson shares Hidden Treasures
NPR unlocks the secret of Houdini's bloodline

How can I recognize Houdini fakes?
Houdini is hugely collectible, and therefore, the market is filled with fakes. The best form of protection is to deal only with established sellers and known auction houses, such as Potter & Potter and Haversat & Ewing. Avoid clipped signatures and know COAs offer very little protection. And while not strictly "fake," some reproductions are now old enough that they can be mistaken for originals, most notably the "King of Cards" poster and an infamous Parson Theater program.
Further reading:
Houdini fakes are flooding online auction sites
That pesky Parson's Theater program